December 03, 2008

The East Coast of Taiwan - Taroko Gorge (Part 1)

In the lingo of the East Coast Amis natives, "taroko" means "beautiful. Taroko National Park, situated in the northeastern part of Taiwan and established on November 28, 1986, covers more than 92,000 hectares in the northern section of the Central Mountain Range.

Taroko began its emergence about four million years ago with the collision of the Philippine Oceanic Plate and the Eurasian Continental Plate. At that time, thick layers of limestone formed over many tens of millions of years in the shallow seas of earlier times were gradually pushed high above the ocean surface to form lofty peaks. During this period of immense tectonic forces, the high pressures and temperatures of compression folded and metamorphosed the original rock (limestone) into marble. Taroko Gorge was patiently carved over millions of years, as the Liwu River gradually wore away at Taroko's hard marble foundations. With the river continually etching away and Taiwan's mountains continue to rise, the gorge deepens at the rate of 5mm a year.

Taroko ranks among the world's most stunning scenic locations, with towering mountains, tectonic faults, deep river valleys, and waterfalls pack a great variety of sights into a relatively concentrated space. The main Taroko Gorge generally refers to the 20-km section of the Central Cross-Island Highway that runs from Taroko to Tiansiang. As one travel west from the arched entrance as the eastern end, the gorge becomes narrower and narrower. The narrowest parts of the gorge are at Swallows' Grottos and the Tunnel of Nine Turns, and here too, are the most enchanting vistas.

The area was first occupied by the Taroko aboriginals. In the old days, facial tattoos were culturally significant in the Taroko tradition. Everyone at seven or eight must be tattooed on the forehead for tribal identification. At 14 or 15, a young man would be tattooed on the chin after his first successful head-hunting. The head-hunting initiation rite was banned in 1914 during the Japanese Occupation and was completely abolished by 1930s. The human head was replaced by a large wild game like a boar or a black bear. A young woman would be tattooed on the cheeks when she mastered weaving.

There are a number of hiking trails to appreciate the beauty of Taroko National Park. The first one we took was the Shakadang Trail near the entrance of the park. The highlights were the stone patterns due by erosion by the river and the clear bluish water of the river.

Next we went to Swallows' Grottos, where the rock face of the cliffs has countless tiny holes; many were carved out by the Liwu River long time ago, when it pounded by at this level. Other holes were carved out from within - places where underground streams once found their mid-air exits. There were once swallows' nests in many holes, but tourist traffic has driven them elsewhere.

We then adjourned for lunch at the small town of Tiansiang at the gorge's western terminus, once the site of a Taroko village. Its name commemorates Wen Tian-Siang, who lived in the 13th century was the last prime minister of the Song Dynasty. Just before the town is a six-story pagoda perched atop a low peak and can be accessed via a short suspension bridge.

After lunch, we backtracked to Heliu, the highlight of which is the Bridge of Motherly Devotion. Beneath it are massive pure marble boulders fallen from high above, loosened from their vantage points by typhoon rains, tectonic heaves, and Mother Nature's more patient pecking.

Before reaching Heliu, we ventured onto the suspension bridge across the river that leads to roads that were used to access the forests.

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